Free Voice looses Menassat – A loss for Lebanon & the region
Menassat’s primary goal is to expose the problems and challenges that journalists in the Arabic-speaking world face on a daily basis, and to help overcome them,” reads Menassat’s now-forlorn “About Us” page. But for journalists at the Beyrouth-based Middle East news website, one problem proved insurmountable: funding.
The website, started in November 2007, frequently recorded 3,000 hits a day and employed an editorial team of nine resident journalists with correspondents across the region. Regularly updated with dispatches, video reports and reader contributions, Menassat was on the verge of establishing itself as a leading Middle East forum for news and debate.
Last week, apparently without warning, a post appeared on Menassat’s homepage detailing “staff sackings.” The article was quickly removed but proved to be the website’s final contribution.
Former Menassat office manager Lina Sahhab spoke on Monday of her disappointment that the website had ceased operating. “I really liked the project and I hope it will continue in the future,” Sahhab told The Daily Star.
The site had been funded by Free Voice, a Dutch media organization which distributes grants from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs to independent news projects around the world. On September 4, Free Voice issued a press release saying that although it considered Menassat to be a “highly successful” project, it would no longer bankroll the website’s activities.
The statement cited an understanding that Menassat would seek independent funding from August 1, 2009 and, since this had not materialized, “Free Voice [was] forced to terminate its support, in line with these agreements.”
It sounded the death knell of an organization that had been in trouble since May this year, when a dispute between Free Voice and the website owner forced the staff to vacate their offices in Damascus Road and work from home instead.
Negotiations were held and Menassat’s staff agreed to up editorial performance in return for Free Voice’s promised attempts to secure independent funding which would enable the website to continue as a separate entity.
However, one of Menassat’s former reporters, Saseen Kawzali, told The Daily Star that Free Voice’s decision to cut ties with the website had been made as far back as last year.
“Even during these months of discussions we were working in a very unsure situation for a long time but we still agreed to step up the performance of the site.”
The efforts seemed to take effect, with site traffic soaring by more than 1,000 visitors a day. But Kawzali’s hunch – that the site was already doomed – would eventually prove correct.
Legal wrangling between Free Voice and the website’s owners was responsible for the failure to procure additional funding and start an independent news organization, according to Sahhab.
“We couldn’t do this because we weren’t a legal entity. What do you tell a donor about an organization that doesn’t yet exist?
“We were paralyzed waiting for people in Holland with all the legal papers,” she said.
Kawzali added that, in spite of Free Voice’s protestations to the contrary, no discernable effort was made to keep Menassat afloat.
“I can’t honestly clear Free Voice from blame. I don’t feel that they did enough to ensure we had a real chance of starting a new organization,” he said. “I still don’t have a clear idea of why we couldn’t start that organization. [Free Voice] purveyed a sense of waiting to pronounce a time of death,” he added.
Rumors have been whirling since the website’s closure that Menassat’s downfall may not have been down to exclusively financial problems.
An article recently posted by Kawzali criticized the latest United Nations Development Report for being biased toward Israel. The post sparked a ferocious response from some Israeli journalists, one of whom, from the Jerusalem Post, claimed that Dutch taxpayer’s money was “being used to perpetuate Israel as the opium of the Arabs.”
Free Voice’s statement was quick to distance itself from the suggestion of the website being shut down over political or editorial issues:
“There are no reasons for Free Voice to terminate its efforts with regard to content. We highly value the dedication and work of the editorial team and they have furthermore always enjoyed full editorial freedom,” the statement said.
Sahhab also denied that concerns over content had led to Menassat’s closure.
“We never received any requests [from Free Voice] to stop [publishing articles such as] this,” she said.
Kawzali said that it was their apparent fixation on financial matters that lead to Free Voice distancing itself from Menassat.
The website raised awareness on a variety of issues in the Middle East and given the amount of debate conducted on its pages, had clearly begun to make an impact.
“But all that impact was not taken seriously,” said Kawzali. “They made decisions on a purely business structure and sadly this didn’t comply with the aim of the site.”
Filed under: Strictly Lebanese | 1 Comment
Tags: debate, Free Voice, menassat, Middle East forum, news